We have been living in Sion for the last 35 years - in an area where there is a large slum population alongside middle class residential buildings.
Our side of the street
Slums on opposite side of same street
This is a large slum area, a part of which has extended to the street opposite our house. Unhygenic surroundings, early morning brawls for water, blaring speakers during festivals...these have become a part of our life.
But living near a slum also has a positive side to it. It is a symbiotic relationship, where we depend on each other for many things in daily life. We also learn many things from each other.
As a working woman for 35 years, and as a senior citizen now, I have come to depend on my maid and cook, both of whom live just outside our building. Both belong to the Maratha community (Bhosles) and have been instrumental in my learning colloquial Marathi. They have also helped me understand their way of life - festivals, rituals, crafts, etc - all of which take place just outside our house on the street. My cook has now become an expert in South Indian dishes.
My maid's house is one of those on this street. Her grandson is at the door.The menfolk in the slum outside our building have different types of occupations - security guard, pujari, carpenter, plumber, bhajiwala, postman...they are all ready to help us if we need it. Even at midnight, I can walk through our lane without any fear. When I need drumstick leaves for my 'rice adai', they quickly climb the tree and get them for me. When we need something heavy moved, they lend a helping hand, without any payment. I remember the time when my 10-year old daughter was hit by a car. One of the men from the houses in the slum carried her to a cot on the pavement, and revived her with water.
In turn, I think they find us beneficial too. Living near us provides employment for all the women who want to find work, without any commuting. Some mothers send their children to me for help with schoolwork. We contribute towards community festivals. We help in filling forms and writing letters, and also in finding jobs for young men. In times of water crisis, my maids fill their water pots at my house. In emergencies, we provide first aid. These are not extraordinary acts of social service, but the day-to-day exchange and accomodation that comes from having slum dwellers for neighbours.
Over the course of the past 35 years, these daily interactions have allowed us to also become part of their extended community. Although the dividing line between have and have-not exists, it has definitely blurred over the years. Another phenomenon I have observed is that a spirit of equality has emerged, very different from the traditional attitude of servitude and humility that the poor still display in villages.
My maid's neighbour, a confident and assured lady.Having slums nearby has also opened my eyes to the lives of people who have far less in life than I do. A lesson that all of us can learn from watching slum dwellers is that of sharing and co-operation. A cup of tea is shared by half a dozen people. When a mother goes to work, other women mind her children. On festivals and occassions, even the poorest houses celebrate. In fact, the best thing to learn from the slums is their vibrant, happy and carefree attitude. I often wonder how they have so much fun and laughter when they are not even certain of where the next meal is coming from.
My maid's daughter Kartika, always smiling